Sheriff Jeff Johnson was the guest speaker at Monday night’s Dawson County Republican Party meeting, where he presented an overview of the accomplishments he’s seen during the almost two years he has been in office.
Johnson said there were a few things he was concerned with when he took office, but the most important was to build upon the autonomy and independence of the sheriff’s office.
One of the biggest pieces of that came in re-establishing Dawson County’s SWAT team under the direction of Patrol Commander Matt Hester.
The county has not had a functioning SWAT presence in over 10 years.
“For years Dawson County has been relatively small in the whole scheme of things when we’re talking about law enforcement operations,” Johnson said. “One thing we’ve had to do in the past, say if we had a need of a K-9 bomb dog, we’d have to call in a neighboring jurisdiction to come in. That was an inconvenience to our county, that caused us to have to keep businesses shut down longer, roadways, different things like that, while we’re securing an area, waiting on assistance to come to us.”
In Johnson’s effort to make the sheriff’s office more independent, not having to wait for assistance from other agencies is key.
“I think that’s important because at the end of the day when it's you in need of help...I want you to have that as quickly and as readily accessible as we can, I don’t want you to have to wait on us to get somebody else to come here,” he said.
Johnson compared being a new sheriff to being a new football coach- the new sheriff will often bring in a new command staff just like a new football coach will bring in a new coaching staff. The same election year that Johnson came into office, Duane Piper was defeated for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s seat. Johnson was able to obtain Hester, one of Piper’s former commanders.
Hester has an extensive background in SWAT operations and training, Johnson said, and after a year of training Hester was able to bring the team together this summer.
“Now as a county we have the ability to call a SWAT team out, and I know that’s something that you don’t like to hear, that you don’t necessarily like to think about, but as a county I think that’s a bit of insurance for us to have the ability to do so,” Johnson said. “From a law enforcement safety perspective, it’s great now that we instead of sending young recruit rookie officers into scenes that are potentially violent, now we have a team of trained, experienced people that we can send in to at least secure it.”
Two additional K-9 units, one a tracking and drug dog that came on staff in early 2017 and another a bomb dog who joined the ranks in February of this year, have also elevated the kind of work the sheriff’s office is able to do.
The county’s three tracking and drug detection dogs allow deputies to be proactive in their approach to drug enforcement, Johnson said.
The bomb dog, Arthur, has already been working hard in the school system, giving officers the ability to go in and secure areas.
“If we get suspicious calls or packages or things like that, now it's just a phone call away we’ve got our own K-9 in route to that,” Johnson said. “We’ll have them out at sporting events, we’ll have them out at our courthouse, so we’re trying to take full advantage of this bomb dog.”
Arthur also serves the dual purpose of tracking like the drug detection dogs.
“We had a young teenage boy with autism leave his house, and it hasn’t been that long ago. And thankfully a member of our community seen where he was at on Shoal Creek Road, we got the word out pretty quick...we got the K-9s on the ground,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t long before our bomb dog actually keyed in on it, the young man was hiding in the woods. He was scared to begin with, but he was scared of us being out there and I don’t believe that we would have ever seen him had it not been for our K-9.
“It’s already paying dividends for us, we’re already seeing the benefits of having these K-9s on staff.”
Other recent advances include a recent decision by the Dawson County Board of Commissioners to provide funding that allows for a school resource officer in every school.
The board voted April 5 to allocate two new resource officers.
“There’s not many counties around that can say they have a full time school resource officer in every public school but we can proudly say that now,” Johnson said.
The board of commissioners also voted to allocate money for school traffic detail so that SROs are not taken out of the schools to conduct traffic in the mornings and afternoons. Just like the SRO positions, the county pays half while the board of education pays the other half.
Another achievement is that all of the officers are now equipped with active shooter preparedness gear. Johnson said officers typically wear vests that can withstand the caliber of the gun that they carry.
“It’s a sad day that we live in when your law enforcement officers are being targeted as they are but it's all too common of an occurrence, so we felt it's necessary that we could better prepare our first responders so now they have the gear and the equipment to be able to take a rifle round and from an officer safety perspective that’s huge,” Johnson said.
Something else Johnson emphasized was the department’s recent certification as a Georgia State Certified Law Enforcement Agency. There are 159 sheriff’s agencies in the county and only 22 are state certified.
The DCSO was first endorsed as a Georgia State Certified Law Enforcement Operation in 2008 and was the seventh sheriff’s office in the state to become state certified.
The department also recently unveiled a new website that gives the public easy access to command staff contact as well as local sex offenders and current inmates.
Going forward Johnson said he would like to look into getting a drone to assist in search and rescue as well as look at other ways to utilize modern technologies.
Staffing remains a consistent problem.
“We feel good, we had our first budget meeting the other day,” Johnson said. “We hope that we’re able to add some uniformed officers at the end of this, a step in the right direction. We still have a lot of holes to fill.”
If all of the patrol officer positions are full, there will still only be up to five officers on the streets at any given time, Johnson said. He has been battling a trend of officers leaving for counties and cities further south due to higher salaries and better benefits.
“That’s one of our obstacles where we’re at right now,” Johnson said. "It hurts us as a community when we lose a five-year patrol officer...because it's an investment for our county.”